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All About Umami

What do seared steak, roasted seaweed, sautéed mushrooms, and aged cheese have in common? Umami. The unofficial fifth taste—along with sweet, salty, sour, and bitter—umami is the complex savoriness that makes foods from shrimp to gravy to pizza so mouthwatering.  

More than a combination of flavors, umami is its own unique taste.  Often described as “meaty,” umami-rich foods are well-balanced and satisfying. The word is Japanese (literally translated as “pleasant savory taste”) but umami is present in a range of unexpected ingredients from around the world, including many you likely have on hand.

One reliable umami go-to: Worcestershire sauce. A must-have in Caesar salad and marinades, pantry-friendly Worcestershire combines salty, fruity, and earthy flavors for a mega hit of umami. Sun-dried tomatoes are another convenient source of umami complexity. While ripe tomatoes also have umami, the intensely concentrated flavor of sun-dried makes them an umami secret weapon. And lunchtime favorite BLT? You guessed it: savory, meaty, salty bacon is an umami powerhouse, too. 

Here are some more recipe-ready sources of umami to keep in the pantry or fridge to boost the flavor of whatever’s on the menu: 

Parmesan. We love Parmesan grated over pasta, salad, roasted veggies, beans, grains, popcorn…just about anything. But did you know the rind is also full of umami flavor? Store leftover Parmesan rinds in the freezer and toss them in soups and sauces for extra savory depth (just remember to fish them out before serving!). 

Anchovies. There’s tons of umami in every tiny tin! When used in moderation, anchovies bring a salty, briny savoriness to the party without leaving a fishy flavor. Sauté a couple of chopped anchovies with aromatic vegetables like garlic and shallots when you’re making a beef stew or pasta sauce or finely mince and incorporate into dressings for a rich foundation of flavor.  

Soy sauce. An essential component of many popular Asian cuisines, soy sauce is umami in a bottle. A small amount can impart unmistakably rich, savory flavor in all kinds of meat, seafood, and veggie dishes. Try adding it to marinades, sauces, and braising liquids. Avoiding gluten? Look for tamari, a wheat-free soy sauce variety (just make sure it is labeled gluten free).  

Mushrooms. Whether dried, fresh, or cooked, mushrooms are an umami explosion. With an earthy smell and meaty texture, varieties like shiitake, cremini, morel, and portabella make an especially satisfying addition to meat-free dishes. 

Ketchup. More than French fries’ best friend, ketchup is a versatile ingredient brimming with umami. In fact, the complex flavor of this popular condiment hits all five tastes. A must-have for authentic barbeque, ketchup lends umami to all kinds of glazes and sauces. It also brings out the beefiness when added to meatball, burger, and meatloaf mixes.   

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